Why I Miss The Pools (And Pool Rules) Of America

Leif Parsons for NPR

Leif Parsons for NPR

Dear Americans,

I hear it’s swimming pool season for you. Enjoy it while it lasts.

And as you complain about the crowds at the nearest pool and the annoying list of rules, think of me, envying you.

When I lived in Boston, I swam in a public pool. I loved the quiet, the order, the rope floats that demarcate lanes, the chalkboard with chlorine and pH levels, even the smell of chlorine.

But I especially loved the rules. Rules like, “Always swim complete laps.” “Avoid stopping in the middle of the lane.” “No running on the deck.” “No hanging on lane lines, ropes or rails.” And the markers for slow and fast swimming lanes.

I now live (and swim) in Mumbai. On a typical visit to the pool, I might encounter:

  • The gentleman who swims backward, yes, really, right in the middle of a lane;
  • The police commissioner who’s allowed to swim zigzag from lane to lane and around and around because, you know, he’s police;
  • The elderly uncle who does yoga in the pool, specifically the pose called shava asana, which means he floats around on his back with his eyes shut and a beatific expression on his face, getting in everyone’s way;
  • Multitudes of people stubbornly swimming laps in a pool for diving — and frequently having to slam on the brakes to avoid a diver splashing down from the diving tower.

Here in Mumbai, people swim like they drive. Which is to say it’s a free-for-all. If people could honk in the pool, there would be a constant din. It’s true whether you swim in an elite club (where members can sip fresh watermelon juice standing in the shallow end) or the public pool.

Four years ago, the public pool near me reopened after six years of renovation. I now swim in a glorious Olympic-size, eight-lane facility. The “serious” swimmers swim in one direction when doing laps. Mostly.

I mean, there’s only one old guy trying to swim the width of the pool rather than the length. And one lady doing sun salutations in lane four. Six men are treading water abreast as they chat, blocking three lanes in the middle of the pool. At least once every morning I thwack my head against someone else’s when doing the backstroke, even if I’ve checked to make sure the lane is clear before starting out. I suspect Indians learn to swim with their eyes closed, because there’s no other way to explain how an uncle doing the crawl in a far-off lane has ended up in my path.

Typically, I’m the only one who is outraged. Most people just swim around these obstacles in their path. Sometimes, I manage to catch the eye of a lifeguard, who may intervene … or may not.

Meanwhile, kids run amok, their nannies chasing close behind. For four years, the management has been promising to post the rules for pool conduct. So far there’s nothing. And the lifeguards have no authority at all. The minute they try to discipline someone, the swimmer will pull rank – citing their profession or their uncle’s political office. If the lifeguard persists, the member complains at the pool office, where the civil servant in charge (it’s a government pool, after all) doesn’t even know how to swim let alone how to run a pool.

The pool, then, is a petri dish for how India functions. We’re a nation full of “Me-first” entitlement, used to scamming our way out of any situation. Maybe it’s a remnant of our colonial past: We mistrust authority with a passion, getting ahead is imperative at whatever cost. Where else can you get a driving license without lessons, obtain a medical degree for your nephew without medical school, or grab low-income housing even if you’re not exactly impoverished? If a government official stands in your way, chances are he’s so underpaid or so cowed by the sheer red tape of doing his job right that a bribe or a threat is your ticket out of anything. On top of that, there is no chance of redressal: The justice system is so overburdened that court cases take up to 40 years. It’s easier to stay quiet, never speak up. Rules are mere suggestions.

But once in a while, rules are enforced, even in the pool. Being a patriarchal country, India has exclusive “Ladies Time” for swims. At my pool, that’s 3:30 to 5:15 in the afternoon, smack in the middle of the workday, when the sun is still high overhead.

Most women who come wear an improvised burkini — imagine a sleeved tutu with cycling shorts or tights attached. It’s partly for modesty’s sake, but in an all ladies’ time slot, the truth is more evident: The coverage offers protection against a tan. Indian society has a huge bias against dark skin: A visible tan is considered low-class and very distasteful. I know of athletes who have to stop swimming a month before family weddings so their tan lines are less visible in a sari.

I try to go as often as I can and it’s absolutely blissful. Not only is it empty of men, but when it’s really bright and sunny, the women concerned for their complexion stay away. So I get the whole 160-foot-long pool to myself. And then I don’t miss American pools at all.


Poolhardy in Mumbai

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Lonely 'Hope' Appears, But Is Quickly Forgotten

The Sudden Appearance of Hope

After devouring Touch last year, I was fiercely excited for Claire North’s next book, all the more so when I learned its premise: Hope Arden is a young woman who cannot be remembered, except by animals or people whose brains have been damaged. Turn away from her, and everything about her and your interaction with her fades from your mind’s view. When a life improvement app called Perfection leads to a friend’s suicide, Hope sets out on a dangerous path to investigate its makers and whether there’s any connection between the “treatments” Perfection’s clients receive and her own condition.

At a glance, this doesn’t seem to have much in common with Touch — a book about a once-human entity that can occupy people’s bodies by touching their skin. But start reading and the similarities run so deep as to be almost distracting, as if Claire North’s entire purpose as a pseudonym of Catherine Webb is to write variations on one core theme.

Forgotten by her family at the age of 16, Hope grows into an accomplished thief, drifting through a life of repeated first impressions and moment-by-moment reinvention: Hope cases people as easily as places, circling their psyches, desires and motivations one forgotten conversation at a time. Where Touch‘s Kepler steals bodies and whole lives, Hope steals jewels — but the unbearable violence their existence does to intimacy is very much the same. For someone to wake alone in a hotel room surrounded by evidence of sexual activity they can’t remember initiating or experiencing is a horrible violation; for Hope, it’s the unavoidable cost of interaction.

But Hope, like Kepler, is at her core benevolent and well-intentioned. In both books, I was dazzled by the depth, loneliness and longing of the narrators; Hope is a wonderful character, willing to work on a heist for months before dashing it all to pieces for the opportunity to punish someone who was cruel to a person she liked. Where Kepler has lived for centuries, Hope can only live in the present moment, unable to plan for a future or maintain relationships outside of computer screens; her motivations whirl between whim and rage at the unfairness of her situation. Like Touch, which spins between Kepler’s recollections of past bodies and lives and a present threat, Hope recalls the people with whom she’s layered repeated interactions, threading them through the narrative of her current pursuit.

If I keep comparing this book to Touch, it’s because it’s impossible not to, having read both — and unfortunately, the comparison isn’t always flattering. The remarkable similarities were initially welcome to me as I wanted more of that voice, style and pace, which I certainly got — but things that I could write off as quirks of Kepler’s character became difficult to ignore with Hope. Both characters are well-travelled, skimming the world’s surface like skipping stones, but speak with an unchecked authority about places and cultures that occasionally fall into stereotype and cliché. Hope, who is dark-skinned, comments on the racism of Japan in a way she doesn’t about any other place, and remarks on the misogyny of Omani men:

These men might be married, might beat another man to death for even looking at their wives, their sisters, their children, but when a lone Western woman walks through the streets of Oman, that’s fair game, because Western women are like that, aren’t they? They must be, to walk the way they walk, talk the way they talk.

My experience of living in the Gulf was definitely that the misogyny was either equal opportunity, or far more directed at women who were wearing face coverings and abayas — and I certainly never felt it was a unique cultural artifact. Facing street harassment in Britain has not led me to make broad generalizations about British men. This observation from a narrator whose perspective I wanted to trust in other respects, who frequently engages in musings on hypocrisy and inconsistency, stuck out in ways that I couldn’t just chalk up to unreliability.

That said, I was for the most part as thoroughly absorbed by The Sudden Appearance of Hope as I was by Touch; it’s in surfacing from it that I can cast a critical eye backwards and say, this plot petered out, this part went on too long. But the experience of sitting with it, sinking into it, aching along with Hope as her loneliness shapes and breaks her, was wonderful, painful and moving. Though I was far more interested in her day-to-day life than I was in the sometimes creeping, sometimes whipping tendrils of a thriller’s action plot, I was never bored and always invested. If you’ve never yet read a book by Claire North, this would be a great place to start.

Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.

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Death Talk Is Cool At This Festival

A chalkboard "bucket list" stirred imaginations and got people talking at an Indianapolis festival designed to help make conversations about death easier.

A chalkboard “bucket list” stirred imaginations and got people talking at an Indianapolis festival designed to help make conversations about death easier. Jake Harper/WFYI hide caption

toggle caption Jake Harper/WFYI

In a sunny patch of grass in the middle of Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery, 45 people recently gathered around a large blackboard. The words “Before I Die, I Want To …” were stenciled on the board in bold white letters.

Sixty-two-year-old Tom Davis led us through the thousands of gravestones scattered across the cemetery. He’d been thinking about his life and death a lot in the previous few weeks, he told us. On March 22, he’d had a heart attack.

Davis said he originally planned to jot, “I want to believe people care about me.” But after his heart attack, he found he had something new to write: “I want to see my grandkids grow up.”

Others at the event grabbed a piece of chalk to write down their dreams, too, including some whimsical ones: Hold a sloth. Visit an active volcano. Finally see Star Wars.

The cemetery tour was part of the city’s Before I Die Festival, held in mid-April — the first festival of its kind in the U.S. The original one was held in Cardiff, Wales, in 2013, and the idea has since spread to the U.K., and now to Indianapolis.

The purpose of each gathering is to get people thinking ahead — about topics like what they want to accomplish in their remaining days, end-of-life care, funeral arrangements, wills, organ donation, good deaths and bad — and to spark conversations.

“This is an opportunity to begin to change the culture, to make it possible for people to think about and talk about death so it’s not a mystery,” said the festival’s organizer Lucia Wocial, a nurse ethicist at the Fairbanks Center for Medical Ethics in Indianapolis.

The festival included films, book discussions and death-related art. One exhibit at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library had on display 61 pairs of boots, representing the fallen soldiers from Indiana who died at age 21 or younger.

These festivals grew out of a larger movement that includes Death Cafes, salon-like discussions of death that are held in dozens of cities around the country, and Before I Die walls — chalked lists of aspirational reflections that have now gone up in more than 1,000 neighborhoods around the world.

“Death has changed,” Wocial said. “Years ago people just died. Now death, in many cases, is an orchestrated event.”

Medicine has brought new ways to extend life, she says, forcing patients and families to make a lot of end-of-life decisions about things people may not have thought of in advance.

“You’re probably not just going to drop dead one day,” she said. “You or a family member will be faced with a decision: ‘I could have that surgery or this treatment.’ Who knew dying was so complicated?”

With that in mind, the festival organizers held a workshop on advance care planning, including how to write an advance directive, the document that tells physicians and hospitals what interventions, if any, you want them to make on your behalf if you’re terminally ill and can’t communicate your wishes. The document might also list a family member or friend you’ve designated to make decisions for you if you become incapacitated.

“If you have thought about it when you’re not in the midst of a crisis, the crisis will be better,” Wocial said. “Guaranteed.”

About a quarter of Medicare spending in the U.S. goes to end-of-life care. Bills that insurance doesn’t cover are usually left to the patients and their families to pay.

Jason Eberl, a medical ethicist from Marian University who spoke at the festival, said advance directives can address these financial issues, too. “People themselves, in their advance directive will say, ‘Look, I don’t want to drain my kids college savings or my wife’s retirement account, to go through one round of chemo when there’s only a 15 percent chance of remission. I’m not going to do that to them.’ “

The festival also included tour of a cremation facility in downtown Indianapolis. There are a lot of options for disposing of human ashes, it turns out. You can place them in a biodegradable urn, for example, have them blown into glass — even, for a price, turn them into a diamond.

“It’s not inexpensive,” Eddie Beagles, vice president of Flanner and Buchanan, a chain of funeral homes in the Indianapolis area, told our tour group. “The last time I looked into it for a family, “it was about $10,000.”

A crematorium tour was part of the festival, too. Metal balls, pins, sockets and screws survive the fire of cremation.

A crematorium tour was part of the festival, too. Metal balls, pins, sockets and screws survive the fire of cremation. Jake Harper/WFYI hide caption

toggle caption Jake Harper/WFYI

“Really, when it comes to cremation, there’s always somebody coming up with a million dollar idea,” Beagles added. “If you can think of it, they can do it.”

Beagles showed us a pile of detritus from cremated human remains. He picked up a hip replacement — a hollow metal ball — then dropped it back into the ashes.

I’m a health reporter, so I know a fair amount about the things that could kill me, or are already killing me. But watching this piece of metal that used to be inside a human be tossed back onto the heap gave me pause. I’m thinking about what I might write on a “Before I Die” wall. I still don’t know — there are many things to do before I go. But I’m thinking about it a lot harder now.

This story is part of NPR’s reporting partnership with Side Effects Public Media and Kaiser Health News.

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Guns Strike Emotional Chords For People On Both Sides Of The Political Debate

Queen Thompson Brown, who lost a son to gun violence in 2006, speaks prior to the introduction of Democrat Hillary Clinton at the Trayvon Martin Foundation’s “Circle of Mothers” Gala. Joel Auerbach/AP hide caption

toggle caption Joel Auerbach/AP

Queen Brown has told the story for years now, and it shows.

But it doesn’t sound rehearsed. It sounds lived in, thought over, played on repeat over and over again. The story of her son, Eviton Elijah Brown, killed nine years ago, shot by a man Eviton didn’t even know.

Eviton had been a student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, or FAMU, before he was shot. He took some time off from school, to work after his girlfriend got pregnant. He was staying at home with his mother. One day, after a long double shift driving trucks, Eviton came home, exhausted.

His mother made him one of his favorite meals: a fried egg, cooked medium, with garlic powder on top, and some bagels, toasted in the oven. Then Queen Brown stepped out to run an errand. She would never see her son alive again. That would be the last meal she’d ever make for him.

“My son was tired when he died,” Brown said. “But I felt good, because he wasn’t hungry.”

“We do a lot of hugging”

This past Saturday, Hillary Clinton, likely Democratic presidential nominee, mentioned Queen Brown by name.

Brown and Clinton both attended the third annual Circle of Mothers conference last weekend in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The event was founded by Sybrina Fulton, another mother who lost a child to gun violence. Many know the story of her son, Trayvon, killed in a Florida suburb while walking home, wearing a hoodie, holding a bag of Skittles and some tea.

The Circle of Mothers schedule includes not just seminars, but an aerobics class and even two hours of “glam time.”

“We do a lot of hugging,” Queen Brown said of the event. “We do a lot of crying. We do a lot of back rubbing. We connect with ourselves.”

Clinton is trying to draw major distinctions between herself and Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, on guns. Trump was recently endorsed by the National Rifle Association, and when receiving that endorsement, he said the Second Amendment is “under attack” and “on the ballot in November.”

He also said Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment. That’s not true. Clinton favors stricter background checks for gun purchases, as well as holding gun dealers and manufacturers liable for crimes committed with weapons they made.

And while some liberals say her proposals don’t go far enough, she is seemingly diametrically opposed to Trump, and she pointed that out May 21st in front of Brown and dozens of other mothers.

“Donald Trump said that in his very first hour as president, heaven forbid, he would overturn President Obama’s actions to strengthen background checks,” Clinton told the room of mostly black women in their Sunday best, gathered at the Circle of Mothers conference.

“Then Mr. Trump went further,” she continued. “He said that also on [his] first day in office, he’d mandate that every school in America allow guns in classrooms… . That idea isn’t just way out there; it’s dangerous.”

Her comments were well-received, but that’s to be expected. Clinton does extremely well with black voters and women voters, particularly black women. When making comments shortly before Clinton spoke at the event, Queen Brown said of their relationship, emphatically, “We must support those that support us.”

Guns, as an issue, will motivate mothers like Queen Brown or, on the flip side, strict gun-rights advocates like those in the audience last week when Trump received the endorsement of the NRA, even as gun control and gun rights might not be that high on most on most voters’ minds this November.

(A Gallup poll from earlier this year found that for both parties, gun policy, as an issue, was ranked “below average in importance.”) The story of guns, it seems, in this election at least, might be all about motivating both parties’ bases.

“When a mother cries, things have to change”

For Queen Brown, part of Hillary Clinton’s base, every election has become a guns election. She said her work on gun control, and that of other mothers like her, is similar to the work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“She wasn’t trying to take away their drinks, and their right to drink,” Brown said of Candy Lightner, who founded the group after her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. “Ms. Fulton and the mothers, we want you to be a responsible gun owner, just like Ms. Lightner wanted you to be a responsible drinker.”

Brown said the pushback Lightner and MADD experienced from the alcohol and hospitality industries over enhanced alcohol guidelines mirrors what mothers like her are facing from groups like the NRA. But she also believes, with time, they will win.

“When a mother cries,” Brown said, “things have to change.”

Brown said she’s in favor of periodic background checks and even psychological evaluations for gun owners. She wants to close the so-called “gun show loophole” and put laws in place that might have prevented her son’s death; Brown said the man that shot her son did so with a gun that was obtained illegally.

Her son, Eviton, died in his cousin’s car. After Queen made him that last meal, his cousin called and asked him to ride with him while the cousin went to work, to pick up a paycheck. A co-worker of Eviton’s cousin ended up following their car, “shooting it up,” as Queen describes it. The cousin and the coworker were fighting over a girl.

Only Eviton was hit. “I know what the fatal bullet was,” she said. “It was a bullet to his back, and it pierced his lung.”

“The only way to save our Second Amendment…”

Trump has campaigned this cycle as a fierce defender of gun rights, and he’s appealing to mothers on a different level than Clinton: protecting themselves and their families.

Trump has said, repeatedly, that Americans with guns can better protect themselves against terrorism. After the Paris terrorist attacks in November, Trump argued that the number of casualties could have been reduced if more guns were in the hands of the right people. He’s said similar things about last year’s shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., and another mass shooting at a community college in Oregon.

“The only way to save our Second Amendment is to vote for someone you know named Donald Trump,” he said when receiving the endorsement of the NRA. He added, “I will never let you down.”

Trump has called for putting an end to gun-free zones (even in schools and on military bases), suggested that more gun ownership would help prevent mass shootings and said that Clinton wants to take people’s guns away.

Clinton suggested Trump wanted to put guns in classrooms in her weekend speech, prompting Trump to tweet that she was wrong on that point over the weekend. By Sunday, in a phone interview with Fox News, he pushed back, in a seemingly contradictory way.

“I don’t want to have guns in classrooms,” Trump said, directly followed by, “although in some cases, teachers should have guns in classrooms.” Trump said any teacher with a gun in a classroom should be properly trained.

Though Trump’s stance on guns has been relatively consistent this election, he’s expressed different views before. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Trump tweeted support of President Obama, after the president gave a speech urging Americans to fight for stronger gun laws. And in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, Trump wrote that he supported a ban on assault weapons and a “slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.

Clinton has changed her messaging on the issue as well. In the 2008 presidential campaign, she often portrayed herself as a pro-gun churchgoer, recalling how her father taught her to shoot when she was a little girl.

When Clinton criticized then-candidate Obama for his comments that conservatives bitterly “cling” to their guns and religion, Obama said, “She’s running around talking about how this is an insult to sportsmen, how she values the Second Amendment; she’s talking like she’s Annie Oakley. Hillary Clinton’s out there, like she’s out in the duck blind every Sunday; she’s packing a six-shooter. Come on. She knows better. That’s some politics being played by Hillary Clinton.”

In her speech to Queen Brown and the other mothers this past weekend, Clinton struck a different tone. “I love my daughter and granddaughter more than anything, and I worry about them as every mother does,” she said. “And I want them always to be safe.”

“One of us has a dead son…”

For several hours after his death, Queen Brown didn’t know where Eviton was, or whether he was alive. She drove the streets of Miami with her sister, the mother of Eviton’s cousin, who had been driving the car. When they heard a radio report saying that a car in town had been shot several times, and that only one passenger lived, Brown said she knew that story was about Eviton and his cousin.

It put Queen and her sister, both of them looking for their own son, in a strange position. Queen said to her sister, “One of us has a dead son, and one of us has a dead nephew. And I hope it’s not your son, but my God, I hope it’s not my son, either.”

It was Queen’s son. He died in the parking lot of a Mercedes-Benz dealership, after a nurse, shopping for a car, was unable to resuscitate him before medical assistance arrived.

Eviton Elijah Brown had turned 24 less than two weeks before. There was still leftover cake from his birthday at home.

Guns — a base motivator or something more?

A Gallup poll from earlier this year identified which issues are most important for voters so far this election. The poll found that Democrats and Republicans agreed on the four top issues in this campaign: the economy, terrorism, jobs and healthcare. Gun policy was ranked as “below average in importance” to the average voter.

But this could change. Trump’s attempts to link gun rights to protecting oneself against terrorism could resonate with voters, and another major mass shooting before the election might bring the issue to the forefront as well.

Predicting how guns might influence Americans’ vote this fall could be difficult. Though vast majorities of Democrats and Republicans support individual measures, like preventing people with mental illness from purchasing guns, and requiring background checks for gun owners, when voters are asked about what Gallup defines as “fundamental attitudes about whether it is more important to control gun ownership or to protect the right of Americans to own guns,” the public is more divided.

The question is whether gun rights, and gun control, will only be a base-motivating issue this November, or something that speaks to a larger cross-section of America. If it does, Queen Brown hopes voters see things her way.

Either way, Brown said her activism on these issues will continue. “I don’t have a choice,” she said. “I’m going to either be a victim and be sour and be mad, or I’m going to be someone that’s looking for the good in all of this bad.”

“I’m not the same person I was before I lost my son,” she said. “I love harder.”

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Golden State Beats Oklahoma City To Force A Game 7

Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) shoots over Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) during the second half of Game 6 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals in Oklahoma City on Saturday. The Warriors won 108-101.

Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) shoots over Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams (12) during the second half of Game 6 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals in Oklahoma City on Saturday. The Warriors won 108-101. Sue Ogrocki/AP hide caption

toggle caption Sue Ogrocki/AP

Klay Thompson made a playoff-record 11 3-pointers and scored 41 points, and the defending champion Golden State Warriors forced a seventh game in the Western Conference finals with a 108-101 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday night.

Stephen Curry bounced back from a slow start to finish with 29 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.

The Warriors, who set the league’s regular-season record with 73 wins, will host Game 7 on Monday. The winner will play Cleveland in the NBA Finals.

“I just so proud of everybody, man,” Thompson said. “We were down almost the whole game and we never gave up.”

Oklahoma City dominated Games 3 and 4 at home, but the Warriors made 21 of 44 3-pointers on Saturday, while Oklahoma City was 3 of 23.

“About time we had a stretch in this building where we imposed our will,” Curry said.

Kevin Durant scored 29 points and Russell Westbrook added 28 for the Thunder. But Durant made just 10 of 31 shots and Westbrook was 10 of 27.

Trying to become the 10th team to overcome a 3-1 deficit, the Warriors trailed much of the game and were behind by eight going to the fourth quarter.

Thompson kept them in it with four 3-pointers in just over seven minutes to start the period. Curry then hit two 3s, the second of which tied the game at 99 with 2:47 to play.

Thompson’s 3 with 1:35 to play put the Warriors up 104-101.

The Thunder, who blew a number of fourth-quarter leads during the regular season, fell apart in the final minutes after Golden State had finally gone ahead for good.

Westbrook lost control of the ball, and after Thompson missed a 3, Westbrook turned the ball over again. Curry’s layup with 14.3 seconds to play put the Warriors up by five, the Thunder turned it over again, and the Warriors were in the clear.

The Thunder led 23-20 after one quarter, then seized momentum early in the second. Steven Adams’ powerful one-handed dunk on Draymond Green drew a roar from the crowd and gave Oklahoma City a 37-28 lead. Green, who had hit Adams in the groin area twice during the series, was a constant target for the vocal Thunder fans.

Thompson opened the second half with back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Warriors a 54-53 edge, but the Thunder closed the quarter strong and led 83-75 heading into the fourth.

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